PR machine on overdrive as unpopular slow tram costs triple
Government PR machine on overdrive as
unpopular slow tram costs triple
Sunday 18th November 2018
It’s difficult to remember an occasion when a senior government official (in this case NZTA boss Fergus Gammie) climbed in the ring to slug it out in the newspaper columns with a politician (veteran Auckland councillor Mike Lee) but these are unusual times - and Transport Minister’s Phil Twyford’s $3.7bn ‘City Centre to Mangere’ slow tram project is certainly an unusual project.
Gammie’s intervention, in Fridays online NZ Herald, in defence of his boss, even before NZTA has a business case to justify his position may be just a burst of premature enthusiasm but looks rather more like a sign of desperation.
In a recent NZ Herald poll of 13,300 participants on the question of light rail to the airport 96% were against trams (82% for heavy rail). Rather than thinking again, Minister Twyford is pushing ahead regardless and evidently upping the PR campaign.
While Minister Twyford lent heavily on ‘experts’ in his recent Herald article, Gammie refers to various ‘studies’ to justify the official preference for a 24 km tram line down Dominion Road rather than a 7km train line to the airport. To our knowledge, in recent times, there have been three comparative studies into the best form of public transport to the Airport. The first by Beca in 2008, a second by GHD in 2011 (this with the active involvement of all the parties including NZTA and Auckland International Airport Ltd). Both these studies recommended a heavy rail connection to the airport. However, a 3rd study, commissioned by Auckland Transport management in 2016 using the consultants Jacobs NZ, recommended instead a light rail connection down Dominion Road. The claims and figures in the Jacobs report, met with widespread criticism within the engineering sector, have now seen its costs triple in two years since the report was released. Despite these cost blow-outs, industry negativity and lack of public support for this project the Gammie and his minister instead plough on with this vanity project.
Missing from Gammie’s article and his organisation, are answers for Aucklanders looking for justification for their additional regional fuel tax and significant rate rises, he has added nothing new to the debate. He quotes “providing better transport access and more capacity to support growth in the CBD and wider urban areas”, extra buses in Mangere would provide this, and nobody is going to stop using cars of just because better transport access is provided. Gammie delights in mentioning the international light rail providers involved in NZTA’s research but does nothing to explain why such rigour was not done when originally looking at the transport modal options instead leaving process to a report authored by a roading engineer.
Despite highlighting ‘future’ city bus congestion by Gammie as part of the problem trams will solve, no city-based bus infrastructure has been proposed either by AT or NZTA. Auckland lost its dedicated bus depot with the building of Britomart, while it gained a better train station is lost a method to deal with bus congestion. Cities like New York, Brisbane & Denver have high capacity bus stations that remove central bus stops off streets and allow service expansion. New York’s Port Authority handles 8000 buses a day with its Port Authority depot, Brisbane’s underground Queens Street station provides a similar benefit. Brisbane, regional pioneer of the busway system, that Auckland followed, is solving a very similar bus congestion issue with new types of buses that will see a project cost being a third of the slow tram project, Brisbane Metro
Instead of advocating for a better vision for Auckland’s transport or building a good business case for this project, Gammie instead choses to look for support by misquoting Mike Lee’s support of light rail in 2015. He omits to add that Lee was referring to a light rail model which entailed lines down four parallel roads converging on Symonds Street and Queen Street. This Melbourne style approach, with modern trams sharing the road with existing traffic, was proposed as a future solution for bus congestion on the most congested isthmus routes - never as an airport service. Despite being too slow and capacity not optimised a credible airport service, Gammie’s Dominion Road tramline ironically will also do nothing to relieve isthmus traffic congestion and indeed is likely to exacerbate it with the effective removal of such a critical roading artery.
Speaking of which given he is now in charge of what Minister Twyford has called the ‘biggest transport project in New Zeeland’s history’ Gammie could well reflect on the last time he was responsible for a major transport project in Auckland. That was in 2011 when Gammie as the chief operating officer for Auckland Transport in charge of the 2011 Rugby World Cup opening night, oversaw that disastrous transport failure, the horror stories from which was enormously embarrassing for New Zealand’s image around the world, and lasting reputational damage to the image of Auckland’s public transport.
Whatever its impacts on Dominion Road and nearby suburbs, the hyper expensive slow tram to Mangere will fail to deliver the rapid service that the future Auckland International Airport and its growing workforce and passengers desperately need. A rethink is needed.